Unscripted: How I Met the Community.

Unscripted: How I Met the Community.

Matt O’Donnell, Chicago
Community of Sant’Egidio | August 26th, 2016

It’s late August. A time occasionally referred to in the film industry as a “dump” month (elegant phrase, isn’t it?). A month where studios release, in a large quantity, films that they were contractually obligated to produce. Typically, these films are of a much lesser quality than the blockbusters from earlier in the summer. It can be a real downer because it means that the malaise of summer winding down is starting to set in, and we are still about two long weeks from conference play in college football. So, at a time when entertainment is sparse, the days start to shorten ever so slightly, and families prepare for yet another year of school, I thought I would try to provide some relief by sharing the story of my trip to Rome earlier this year.

I’ve told this story to several friends. Many responded by saying how “cool” or “awesome” it was that I had successfully flipped an emotionally and financially bankrupt situation into something positive. But of these reactions, one really stuck with me. It was, “wow – that’s like something out of a movie, man.” And when I thought about it, the way that I came to meet the Community of Sant’Egidio did seem to have some of that Hollywood magic. Not because it was glamorous or extravagant, or because of anything that I did, but because – well I don’t want to give it away in the opening credits. You’ll have to keep reading:

The story starts like many of our favorite romantic comedies – with love lost. I had been seeing someone for the better part of five years. We got along well and really enjoyed being around each other. When she found out last October that she would be spending the first half of this year in Rome, I immediately purchased my ticket and began planning a three-week trip to see her in February. However, two months later, around Christmas, we had decided to go our separate ways. It was really difficult but before I could reflect on what happened, I knew the first step was addressing the expensive elephant in the room: my round-trip ticket to Rome.

What would I do for three whole weeks in a country where the best I could do to communicate was speak some Spanish? I couldn’t do it. I would be by myself, miserable, for three weeks. I told myself that I had to cancel the trip. Canceling the hotels was easy, but the airline was a much more formidable opponent. So I concocted a story that stretched the truth a bit and called this airline during one of my lunch breaks. Now, for all the fine people who labored as my educators throughout the years, you know firsthand I was very creative when it came to where my homework assignments had occasionally and mysteriously vanished. But I stood no match for Debra from United whose argument was, “I’m sorry sir but you bought a non-refundable ticket when you had the option to buy a refundable one.” Damn Debra, you’re good – now, I have to go.

At this point, I pivoted my thinking. I had to. I was going to make the best of this trip and use the next seven weeks to figure out how. So I got to thinking. What would I do once I got there? What is something I always enjoy? Well, that one was easy – helping others. From Polar Plunge to coaching high school Mock Trial (shout out to Cristo Rey Chicago, we’re winning it all this year), I always enjoy helping others. I thought about a story I read in The Slight Edge, a book my good buddy Ben recommended. The essence of the story is a six-degrees of separation type thing. If I remember correctly, the man in the story wants to start a business in Germany, so he constantly asks about Germans. Eventually, he met someone who knew someone else that knew Germans. So what did I do? That’s right, ask about Italians. Who knows any? Who? Where? How? What do they do? And sure enough, someone knew some Italians. Not only did they know Italians, but they also put me in touch.

I started the next chain of connections. I e-mailed Father Bob Maloney, a friend of my friend. He connected me with his contact, Gianni. Gianni e-mailed me back and put me in touch with Paola. We scheduled a time to speak on the phone and we made plans to meet at a Saturday evening mass at Santa Maria in Trastevere, a neighborhood in Rome. Finally, Thursday, February 11th arrived and I got on the Blue Line after work to go to the airport. That was it. I was off. Not a clue as to what the next eighteen days would hold. And that’s the part of the story that feels the most cinematic. I was alone, lost, and unprepared. But I was willing to seek out grace and friendship and I was definitely challenging myself to accept them both if they came my way. When I met Paola that night after mass, she welcomed me with open arms and spoke to me as if I was an old friend. The next day she picked me up and we went to celebrate mass in Primavalle with some elderly and intellectually disabled friends (or as they are more aptly in Italian called gli amici, “the friends”).

The rest of my time was day after day of meeting wonderful people and encountering life long friendships. Friendships with Paolo, Gabriella, Natasha, Odair, Fernando, and Zeger. Friendships with Gabriele, Gianni, Monica, Arnalda, Rafaela, Giulio, Mauro, and Elena. People who gracefully pulled me through the obstacle of the language barrier. Like the time I kept calling a baby a nuotano (which literally translates to I swim) instead of a neonato (newborn). People who surrounded me with love and made me forget any sadness I had brought with me. Like when I found out upon arriving that my apartment was four blocks from where the person I bought my ticket for was staying and that to get to the Vatican I had to walk past it (definitely the stuff of a romcom, right?!). And people who taught me that you are limiting yourself if you view helping others as service work. Like when I met with the amici for the last time before my return journey to Chicago and realized that this was not a service trip, but a trip that provided me with dozens of new friendships. Friendships on the other side of the world that had only been waiting for me to take the first step.

And that is what the Community has meant to me since I’ve returned to Chicago. It has taught me that, yes, service is great because it pushes us to share our time and talents with others. But friendship is there too and like the air we breathe it is something we all have within us. To me, Sant’Egidio is not a service group. It is not a “church group” or set of rules on how to live your life. It is an invitation to friendship. An invitation that is addressed to everyone and only asks of the recipient that they share this invitation with others. The actions of the Community show this every day. From working with the Italian government to bring refugee families safely to Italy through the Humanitarian Corridors program, to the march through the Jewish quarter in Rome in remembrance of the deportation of the Jewish people in the thirties, to the D.R.E.A.M. project that fights AIDS and malnutrition in Africa, and to the yearly Christmas lunch celebrated simultaneously each Christmas Day in the communities around the world. Sant’Egidio welcomes everyone as long as you are willing to accept love and friendship and peace and share it with others.

That is why starting a Community in Chicago has become important to me. Most days I am proud to be a Chicagoan, but there are many days I am not. I fear that the violence and tragedy that happens on a weekly basis has become so commonplace that we are numb to it. But I know that with friendship and patience we can change that. We can curb the violence and shine a light on so many positive and wonderful people and things that go on in this city on a daily basis. The fact that the outside world views Chicago as an extremely violent city just provides us with an even greater opportunity to be a profound example of change. As one of my American heroes, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., famously said during a 1957 sermon, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” To me, friendship is the primary vehicle through which love travels. To me, this is what the Community of Sant’Egidio offers us all. Even if I can’t establish a group that can stand on its own, I think an important start is to change how I act, and do so by inviting all I encounter into a friendship.

So, if you ask me, yeah they could definitely make that into a movie – one in which I would obviously be played by either Leo DiCaprio or maybe even Tom Crusie. But in all seriousness, when I look back on this experience, it shocks me how blessed I was to have had it. The experience was one that I could not have foreseen – it was completely unscripted. And that’s the beauty of it. All I had to do on my end was look. When I opened my eyes and looked, I found friendships. I found love. I found peace. I found hope. It reminds me of one of my (fictional) heroes, who once wisely said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop to look around once and awhile, you just might miss it.”


Youth Meeting – Washington 2016

Youth Meeting - Washington 2016

Do you dream of a better world? Do you want to improve your city? Do you want to know more about the Youth for Peace? If so, come join us in our Youth Meeting. Come spend a day in friendship as we exchange past experiences and aspirations for the future. If you too think your city can improve, join us as we work concretely to improve the world around us; one person and one service at a time.

A Culture of Solidarity

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Renan Orellana, New York City
     Community of Sant’Egidio | August 9th, 2016

The culture of our cities in the U.S. seems to be more of a culture of isolation than of encounter, of neglect than of service, of individualism than of solidarity. Pope Francis asks each of us What does serving mean? and if we want to conform to a definition of service widely promoted in our cities, we can easily respond to this question with “volunteering your time to help someone”.

But to serve means so much more than to simply be physically present for someone with your time and efforts. Pope Francis calls us to serve in the same way that Jesus knelt down to wash the apostles’ feet:

“What does serving mean? It means giving an attentive welcome to a person who arrives. It means bending over those in need and stretching out a hand to them, without calculation, without fear, but with tenderness and understanding…”

How many times do we find ourselves offering to help someone, but do it with impatience, in a rush, mechanically, as if physically present but absent to the human relationships that are right in front of us?

In New York, we take the children of the School of Peace to Hopkins Nursing Home because through friendship with the elderly we can teach them and ourselves the importance of establishing human relationships of closeness and compassion. Like many of us, the children arrived at the nursing home for the first time with fear and even disgust. Like many children and young people in our cities, the children of the School of Peace were never given the opportunity to encounter the elderly with compassion. To them, the elderly were too old, too weak, too frail, too stinky and too sad to ever become a friend. To the world, the elderly are too old, too weak, too frail, too stinky and too sad to ever become once again valuable members of communities and society. The culture of waste in our cities throws away the elderly and sick to nursing homes, prisons for those who have lost their human value.

But the children of the School of Peace are a testament to how we can change the mentality of this world through love and bonds of solidarity. The children of the School of Peace love the elderly – they sing with them, dance for them, push around the wheelchairs, talk to them, serve them food, celebrate with them. The elderly love the children and youth that visit them, and together as one big family, we celebrate the transformation of a forgotten prison into a place of welcome, encounter and service.

So let’s remember the word solidarity when we go out into our cities. Because, as Pope Francis said, this is a word that frightens the developed world:

“People try to avoid saying it. Solidarity to them is almost a bad word. But it is our word! Serving means recognizing and accepting requests for justice and hope, and seeking roads together, real paths that lead to liberation.”



To the other end of the World and back

Ashly and I had the amazing opportunity to spend a month in Mozambique with the Community. In a world that for many reasons could not be more different than ours we found ourselves right at home, surrounded by a large family. There is a beauty in knowing that wherever in the world you may travel, no matter the language barrier or difference in culture, you can find friends for life through the Community. In our month among many things, we were able to see the DREAM and BRAVO Centers that the Community started, have prayer at one of the prisons in Maputo, meet many Youth for Peace, attend the school of peace, help out at the Nutritional Center and the pre-school that is run there in the morning. While words could never do the experience justice, I hope that Ashly and I can use this trip as a way to bridge the gap between such divided worlds and see that not only there are commonalities between everyone, but also that it is only in recognizing those that we can dream of a better future for all.

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